Who doesn’t want to experience happiness, tranquility, paradise, nirvana, and peace? Given that religion offers a clear path to these spiritual goals, why would so many people flee from religion?
Part of the answer may be that religion’s prescriptions are harder to follow than the seemingly simpler and quicker alternatives offered by the material world.
After all, happiness – of a sort – can be found in food, drink, games, and other entertainments. In a stressful world, these are sold alongside other practices such as yoga, tai-chi, and meditative exercises as various means of achieving happiness. But the happiness brought by these practices is often short-lived.
The happiness promised by religion can become a deeper and more permanent inner state – but attaining to it is much harder than paying for entertainment. Religion makes us look deep into our souls and calls us to cleanse ourselves of whatever impurities we find there until we reflect the most glorious divine attributes – which can be painful. But hard as it may be, the path to the Divine Presence is open to all regardless of creed or nationality or color. All that is required is a willingness to make an effort, and the Creator will assist you. This is the promise of faith.
So if we need to be purified, what must we be purified from? Vice? Impure thoughts? Malicious intent? Actually, true spirituality endeavors to purify us from what underlies all such issues: the ego-self that is attached to all that belongs to this world. Purification and detachment thus go hand-in-hand. In his mystical book The Seven Valleys Baha’u’llah put it this way: “A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn.”
According to Abdu’l-Baha, purification means the purgation of the self and the renunciation of the ego. During his travels in North America, on May 26, 1912, speaking at Mount Morris Baptist Church, he started his talk based on the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee” – prompted by the song, he touched upon the meaning of cleansing the soul, listing the steps involved in that process, including devotion, unity, service, and perfection. He summarized the process by saying: “In a word, nearness to God necessitates sacrifice of self, severance and the giving up of all to Him. Nearness is likeness.“
Though each of us is created in the image and likeness of the Creator, not everyone reflects God’s beauty. The ego-self eclipses the soul, hiding its beauty. Given the true worth of a human being, Baha’u’llah tells us, in The Hidden Words and elsewhere, how to make that inherent gem “resplendent and manifest”: we must “come forth from the sheath of self and desire.”
People do not usually manage such a sacrificial transition all at once, of course. In the path towards the renunciation of the ego, normally the traveler only gradually sacrifices self and desire and replenishes the emptiness with God’s blessings. Purification is a difficult process, requiring great love, knowledge, detachment, and the cleansing power of suffering. Each time you succeed in placing a bit of your ego on the sacrificial altar, you take one step closer to God.
Let’s look at an example. A loved one is very sick. In spite of medical attention, his health continues to deteriorate. You have expended enormous time and energy in prayer, care, and even fund-raising to help him until finally you tell yourself, “I can’t do any more.” It has become clear his life is ebbing, and your distress at losing him twists and turns inside you like a whirlwind.
But you know you can’t change the outcome, so although you love him very much, you let go, leaving the matter to God. In doing so, you have purified and conquered yourself by travelling the path of detachment.
Purification also has a collective aspect. Baha’is understand that Baha’u’llah’s revelation has infused the whole of creation with a marvelous capacity for purification. At the advent of his revelation, Baha’u’llah wrote that: “… all created things were immersed in the sea of purification.”
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Each time a new divine revelation is delivered to humanity, this cosmic “house cleaning” clears away centuries of accumulated error and attachment, preparing the way for the renewal and reconstruction of humanity. Such a deep cleansing is needed for both individuals and nations, so that our hearts will be made new again and our souls will be sanctified for God’s descent.
Perfection is dependent upon purity, which means seeing with the eyes of God and hearing with the ears of God. It means learning over time to do God’s will. It means giving up the self and letting the Will of God work through the soul. It means being poor in self but rich in the things of the spirit, as Abdu’l-Baha wrote: “… a pure sense inhaleth the fragrances that blow from the rose gardens of His grace; a burnished heart will mirror forth the comely face of truth.”
Sanctity is more than just physical cleanliness, healthful living, or even purity of thought, although these are important aspects of our spiritual journey. Ultimately, sanctity is making the heart the throne of God, the sacred goal of the soul in its eternal journey.